Marcus Halaby’s polemic against Workers’ Liberty’s politics on religion, Islamism, and anti-imperialism (“The AWL’s anti-anti-imperialist Islamophobia”) is worth reading because it illustrates some differences between the political method of Workers Power and ourselves in Workers’ Liberty.
Click here for the debate of which this is part, which started with a Facebook outcry in 2013 against the introduction to Workers' Liberty 3/1 of January 2006
Marcus expends more than 3,000 words before he reaches what he calls “the crux of the matter”: our disagreement on imperialism. We’ll start with it.
He writes: “The AWL’s politics on Islam and Islamism are in fact shaped by its politics on anti-imperialism, and in particular by its neo-Shachtmanite rejection of the principle of critical but unconditional support for those fighting imperialism…. where …the ruling classes are forced into regular conflict with it.”
Well… spot on, really. There’s little to argue with in this paragraph. It is certainly true that Workers’ Liberty rejects the idea that a social force or political ideology becomes progressive merely by dint of its opposition to imperialism. We recognise the possibility of reactionary anti-imperialisms – forces which oppose (some) imperialisms, but in the name of an alternative which, from the point of view of working-class rights and human freedom, is no alternative at all. We make our positive politics – support for socialism and human freedom – rather than negative opposition to imperialism, our starting point. We reject the meaningless dogma (or “principle”, as Marcus calls it) of “critical but unconditional support” for anyone fighting imperialism (which, for Workers Power, means western imperialism) — a “principle” which reduces socialists to passive cheerleaders for anti-working class forces.
Take Workers Power’s own explanation of their support for the Taliban in 2001:
“While it is true that we will give neither give any political support to the Taliban regime nor cease the struggle against it, we will subordinate that struggle to the higher priority of defence of Afghanistan against imperialist attack… where the Taliban is in direct conflict with imperialist forces or their local agents, we would, indeed, be ‘on the side of the Taliban’” (Workers Power, 30 September 2001)
The only political function that this “critical but unconditional support” for the Taliban could possibly serve was to spread the idea in the British labour movement that the Taliban weren’t really as bad as all that, because they are fighting imperialism; and that ordinary Afghans’ insistence on continuing to struggle for their freedom against the Taliban would be self-indulgent or sectarian.
So no, unlike Workers Power we do not “critically but conditionally support” Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban, or the Iranian theocracy in their conflicts with (western) imperialism. We do not arrogantly counsel workers and democrats in those countries to “subordinate” their struggles to a “united” struggle against “imperialism” alongside their own rulers. Instead, we focus on practical solidarity with independent working-class forces, however weak they may be at present – even when that focus defies snappy slogans or “anti-imperialist” posturing.
Two dominating characteristics of Workers Power’s political practice show that they are still labouring under the long shadow Stalinism cast over the whole of revolutionary politics, including mainstream Trotskyism. Workers Power’s internal political culture demands that members maintain a pretence of unanimity on all political questions in public — that is, if they disagree with a majority line, they should lie about their views outside the organisation. They also have a Stalinist attitude to international politics, which demands that the class struggle and socialist politics be subordinated to “the higher priority” of support for any force which comes into conflict with “imperialism” (which usually means, US imperialism).
Marcus says that the “most striking divisions in the world today” are “between those countries that are economically exploited and politically dominated by the advanced capitalist imperialist world, and those countries that exploit, dominate and intervene militarily into their affairs...” Marcus claims we are “wilfully blind” to these divisions. Not quite, Marcus. We are not “blind” to them, wilfully or otherwise. In fact, we disagree that they are the key divisions at all. We believe the key division (the “most striking”, if you like) is between labour and capital, within every country.
It is not 1916, or 1922, or even 1950. The world is no longer characterised by the direct political domination of most of the planet by a tiny handful of colonial centres. For sure, big-power imperialisms play an influential and frequently coercive role in shaping the domestic and international policy of weaker nations, but the idea that, for example, Iran is “politically dominated by the advanced capitalist imperialist world” is just wrong. US imperialist hyper-power remains dominant at a global level, but states like Iran are politically independent of it. Iran is a powerful capitalist state in its own right, with regional-imperialist ambitions of its own. Other such states have emerged as regional centres of capitalist power and imperialist expansion. Their ruling classes are class enemies, not potential allies against the bigger imperialisms.
This is not to elide the very real economic inequalities that still exist between countries. There has clearly not been a levelling out of economic power. But the breakup of the old colonial empires into politically-independent states changes the role of local ruling-class resistance to dominant-imperialist power. Except in the few places where colonial relationships prevail (Israel in the Palestinian territories; Russia in Chechnya; Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria in Kurdistan; and others), the logic is not one of national liberation and independence but of local-capitalist autarchy and expansion (or, often, of preferring alliance with and economic domination by one of the “second order” major imperialist powers, Russia or China, to alliance with US hyper-power). From an internationalist, revolutionary-socialist point of view, that is not progressive.
The “wilful blindness” is all on Workers Power’s side. By making negative opposition to imperialism, rather than working-class independence, their starting “principle”, they are forced to blind themselves to the actual class character of the “anti-imperialists” and the real consequences for working-class politics, and indeed basic human freedom, of their victory. Even when they acknowledge a given “anti-imperialist” force as reactionary, they demand that struggle against its reaction is “subordinated” to the “higher” struggle against imperialism. And given that their entire characterisation of the world is predicated on a constant struggle by the “dominated” nations against imperialism, one can only assume that this “subordination” must be indefinite. This logic – of subordinating the class struggle in a given country to the demands of international power-play, global chessboard politics trumping workers’ independent struggle – is not a Trotskyist position, but a recapitulation of the logic of the Stalinist Comintern leadership which ordered working-class Chinese activists in 1925-7 to bind themselves to the ‘anti-imperialist’ Chinese nationalists, the Kuomintang, who eventually massacred them.
Marcus says that, for Workers’ Liberty, “the merest whiff of ‘Islam’ or ‘Islamism’ is a sign that a movement is hopelessly reactionary and unworthy of however critical support.” But as he points out himself, there have been instances in which movements that had, in different ways, a broadly Islamic character which Workers’ Liberty did support: the struggle against Stalinist colonialism in Afghanistan in 1979 and the Libyan people’s revolt against Qaddaffi in 2011, in which Islamists were prominent. Elsewhere, he mentions the Kosovan people’s movement for self-defence and national liberation against genocidal Serbian regional-imperialism in 1999. He might also have included our support for the Bosniac people in the 1990s, and our support for Chechen independence from Russia, despite the leadership of the Chechen movement by foully-reactionary Islamists.
Why did we support these movements, despite their Islamist or semi-Islamist character? Because their victory would have helped the development of independent, democratic working-class organisation — in Afghanistan, by draining the poison of national oppression introduced by Stalinist colonisation, in Libya by overthrowing an autocratic police state, and in Kosovo by protecting a ethno-national minority from genocide. Our positions do not start from dogma or abstract “anti-imperialism” but from the needs and struggles of the workers’ movement in a given country.
Again: in any political situation, at home or abroad, our starting point is always positive – working-class independence, democracy, freedom and socialism. It is not negative – putting a cross where the American ruling class puts a tick.
The rest of Marcus’s article is based on the same distortions, half-truths, and misrepresentations that have characterised the attacks on our organisation since the 1980s. They have been comprehensively responded to more than once; for the most part, we’ll spare the reader a retreading of old ground.
A few points, though, are worth picking up on in particular. One relates to the question of internal democracy. Workers’ Liberty has a tradition of robust internal and public debate on all questions of controversy, with members free to express themselves in our press, in discussion bulletins, and elsewhere. The controversy over the introduction to Workers’ Liberty 3/1 has produced discussion within the group, reflected publicly in our paper, Solidarity. In the past, heated internal debates on a number of issues have also been reflected in our paper. By contrast, the only two occasions from the recent past where dissent within Workers Power found any public expression were in its two splits — in 2006, when it expelled almost all of its industrial militants, who went on to found the now-defunct Permanent Revolution group, and in 2010, when most of its young members left to form the Anti-Capitalist Initiative. We are disinclined to take lectures from such a group about how a revolutionary organisation should conduct its internal democracy.
One of Marcus’s repeated claims is that we have a special hostility to Islam and Islamism that is out of proportion to our opposition to religion and politicised religion in general. The claim relies on shabby debating tactics and sleight of hand – but then it would have to, as its aim is to bolster Workers Power’s ludicrous slander that the AWL is racist.
The contortions of logic required to substantiate the argument that, because of phrases in an article in 2006, “the AWL is racist” are quite spectacular. Our personal view is that the much-debated phrases add little to the 2006 article’s general argument, and are too open to misinterpretation to be useful.But that’s a different matter from being “racist”. And if “the AWL is racist”, what examples can Marcus point to in the totality of our politics, our writing and activity, before 2006 or since, to justify his claim? There have now been nearly eight years for our “racism” to express itself in our activity, or in further articles. Marcus presents no such evidence.
Even on the question of “balance”, Marcus is grasping at straws. It would indeed be problematic, to say the least, if, in a majority-white society where anti-Muslim and other anti-immigrant racism was growing, a group that was part of a majority-white far left outweighed its opposition to that racism by sectarian-secularist denunciations of Islam. But those interested in fact rather than slander should look at our concrete record — both in terms of what we have actually written, and our involvement in migrant solidarity and anti-racist/anti-fascist struggle.
The growth of Islamism as a mass force in majority-Muslim countries, and a growth in religious conservatism and right-wing communalism in Muslim communities in Britain and elsewhere, is a relatively new phenomenon that is certainly worthy of particular attention for people who want to understand how ideologies function in society and who ultimately aspire to win the battle of ideas for revolutionary socialism. But the notion that we reserve a special venom for Islam or Islamism that we do not apply to other religions or political-religious movements is simply not true, and disprovable from a cursory glance at our website (try this, on why socialists oppose the Catholic Church, or this, on systematic child abuse within the church, as just two examples, particularly apposite because Marcus attempts, by selective quotation from a 2007 article about Islamist hostility to the Pope, to suggest we are somehow soft on Catholicism or somehow prefer it to Islam.
Marcus uses the term “Islamophobia” repeatedly throughout his article (including in its title). The term’s provenance and usage is contested, and we have preferred the term “anti-Muslim racism”. In an interview in Solidarity 308, the Bengali secularist activist Ansar Ahmed Ullah writes: “We do not use the term ‘Islamophobia’. Calling things ‘Islamophobic’ is a defence card used by Islamists whenever they are criticised.” His point of view is worth considering. Contemporary anti-Muslim racism contains particular elements of bigoted hostility to Islam as a religion, but also relies heavily on recycling racist ideas about immigration, and South Asian immigration in particular. A term which attempts to summarise that phenomenon as a “phobia” towards a particular religion, and which can be used to undermine legitimate humanist-secularist, as well as illegitimate racist, opposition to that religion, has little explanatory value for socialists.
In the early 2000s, as large numbers of mainly working-class people from Britain’s mainly-Muslim communities mobilised against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain’s left, which previously had little to no implantation in or engagement with these communities, was tested. It failed the test.
Workers Power supported the SWP’s decision to boost the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) as official co-sponsor of the big demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq. MAB was a small group of mainly Middle Eastern activists, linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which, like the left, had little implantation in Britain’s mainly South Asian Muslim communities. But the SWP, supported by Workers Power and others, cynically boosted them and allowed them to present themselves as spokespeople for “the Muslim community” (which as Marcus’s article points out, does not exist as a single entity).
Ullah cites the boost given to MAB, and the Muslim Council of Britain, by the SWP as a key factor in Islamists gaining more of a foothold inside Britain’s Muslim communities, particularly the Bengali community in East London: “The SWP gave them a boost. The decision to focus on Islamist organisations, instead of drawing support from smaller secular organisations, had a serious adverse effect on the Bengali community […] Islamists gained further ground, both ideologically and organisationally.”
Marcus argues that Sean’s article engages in exaggeration of the power of political Islam in Europe by calling it “a force” – meaning to argue that this exaggeration is made with bigoted intent, and noting the weakness of openly hard-line, pro-Caliphate groups. But this is sleight of hand.It is also hypocritical. In 2002-4, AWL argued that for STWC to make MAB co-sponsor of the big Iraq protests was to boost a reactionary minority trend in the Muslim population of Britain, at the expense of orienting to the majority. WP backed the SWP in retorting that not to have the MAB as co-sponsor was de facto to give up on trying to mobilise Muslims - that MAB was so much bigger a "force" than we, AWL, reckoned, that it was impossible to go round it. (See “The MAB experience”, by Martin Thomas, for more on this.)
Today, by pointing to the weakness and marginalisation of radical Islamists like Anjem Choudary, Marcus elides the fact that more “mainstream” Islamists have grown in strength. The core leadership of the East London Mosque (ELM), a significant and growing institution, are Islamists who actively supported Pakistan’s genocidal war in Bangladesh. Individuals like Chowdhury Mueen Uddin, a trustee of the mosque until 2009 and the former Director of Muslim Spiritual Care Provision for the NHS, have been convicted by Bangladeshi courts for war crimes during that war. The ELM has been a base for reactionaries, in alliance with the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, to organise homophobic, anti-abortion, and anti-sex education campaigns in local schools. Marcus acknowledges that Islamism is diverse, and covers a range of views and political tendencies, but then pretends that the marginal bogeymen which populate hysterical Daily Mail editorials are the only possible expression and because they remain, currently, marginal, there’s really no problem at all. In fact, such tendencies do constitute “a force”. Not a force poised to conquer power, not as weighty a force as many other reactionary tendencies and parties in society – but a force nonetheless, which should be noted and confronted.
Marcus states, boldly, that it is “not an exaggeration to say that [anti-Muslim racism] is the anti-Semitism of the twenty-first century”. This rhetorical method is rather unseemly; if anti-Muslim racism “is the anti-Semitism of the twenty-first century”, then what is anti-Semitism? Has it simply passed into history, existing only as a point of comparison for other, contemporary, racisms?
The analogy shows itself grossly disproportionate in many ways. The world today includes many large and powerful officially-Islamic states, which even the biggest powers seek to conciliate and do deals with. In countries like Britain, though groups like the EDL and papers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Express promote anti-Muslim, the government and the state, pursuing an agenda that fetishises “faith groups”, are anxious to ally with and promote "moderate" Muslims (which often means, soft-Islamists).
And does Marcus mean to say that anti-Muslim prejudice is only a big problem in the 21st century? That it was a minor thing in the 20th and 19th centuries, when European colonial powers were frequently suppressing rebellions in Muslim colonies? That it was okay for Workers Power to support the Russian Stalinists in their war in Afghanistan, justified as it was on the basis of the relatively progressive character of secular Stalinism as against the medievalist Muslim culture dominant in Afghanistan’s countryside? Napalming Muslim villagers was relatively progressive in the 20th century, but ideologically criticising Islamists is a sin in the 21st?
But, rhetorical method aside, if the comparison between anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism is meaningful then we should examine the experiences of socialists in and around Jewish communities at times when they faced extreme bigotry and prejudice. A key difference then was that the Jewish communities contained within them substantial organised socialist elements, whereas the overwhelmingly-white British left relates to mainly-Muslim communities almost exclusively “from the outside”. That is, unquestionably, a problem, and one that needs to be confronted, assessed, and worked at in a serious way. But the abject experience of Respect is a warning from history about what happens when socialists dumb down their politics and present themselves as communalists in get-rich-quick pursuits of electoral support from a particular community.
If an immigrant or non-white community faces racism, and conservative political religion is also strong and growing with that community, there is no shortcut for socialists around the essential task of opposing and organising against that racism, in solidarity with an oppressed community, while also confronting and opposing religious reaction.
While the left’s lack of meaningful implantation in any section of Britain’s South Asian Muslim communities (at the sharpest end of anti-Muslim racism) makes a direct replication of the approaches of the past unfeasible, the spirit of socialist and anarchist revolutionaries in their engagements with Jewish communities can be instructive for us. The revolutionaries of the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries managed to combine opposition to anti-Semitism with opposition to religion, to the clerical hierarchies, and to religious communalist politics. There was no suggestion that they should pull their anti-religious punches (which included irreverent “Yom Kippur Balls” and, allegedly, “ham sandwich parades”) lest they fed into, or superficially seemed to resemble, “Judeophobia” in wider society.
Revolutionaries saw no contradiction between such anti-religious activity and the urgent task of organising against racist, anti-Jewish, and anti-immigrant sentiment in the “indigenous” British working class. Revolutionaries like Eleanor Marx and, later, Rudolph Rocker, Milly Witkop, and others were at the forefront of the struggle to confront xenophobia and racism amongst British workers, and to forge links between migrant and local workers’ organisations.
The employers against whom Jewish workers often organised were also Jewish, often in small workplaces which parallel the workplaces of contemporary East London today where both exploiters and exploited are Muslim. The aim of the approach of revolutionaries in relation to Jewish workers was to split an immigrant, ethno-religious community along political and class lines.
Of course, agency and context is crucial. A “ham sandwich parade” of 19th-century Jewish anarchists has a particular context and meaning, a “ham sandwich parade” by white secularists outside a mosque today would function as a racist provocation, whatever its intention. But if a nearer modern equivalent emerged (dissident Muslim youth organising anti-religious spectacles explicitly intended to mock and deride the superstition of the faithful), how would the left react? Tell the troublemakers to quieten down, and denounce them as self-hating Islamophobes? Or applaud their spirit and attempt to reach out to them? How, in fact, did the left react when a writer of Muslim background (and who would later convert to Islam), Salman Rushdie, mocked Islamic superstitions in The Satanic Verses? Back then the left, even the SWP, backed Rushdie. But when some brave journalists and editors in mostly-Muslim countries openly defied and mocked the Saudi-initiated outrage against the Danish “Muhammad cartoons” in 2006, and got sacked or killed for their pains, how did the left react? By effectively backing the protests against the cartoons and supporting their censorship.
There is another illuminating example from revolutionary history, from the period of the October 1917 revolution. “Anti-Muslim racism”, or something like it, was a real issue in the Russian Empire; many mainly-Muslim peoples were downtrodden colonial subjects. The Bolsheviks were vigorous campaigners for their national rights, but also published propaganda explicitly attacking Islam and its oppressive social role (See here for more).
The British far left’s record of boosting Islamists to the direct detriment of secularists and leftists in the Bengali community does not compare favourably to the record of our antecedents. If Workers Power has reassessed its support for the SWP’s promotion of MAB, it should say so openly.
The disagreement between Workers Power and Workers’ Liberty is not that anti-Muslim racism exists, or that it is essential the left opposes it. On that, we entirely agreed. Indeed, Workers’ Liberty members and Workers Power members have worked together in anti-fascist struggles, in East London and elsewhere.
Our differing assessments of whether or not Islamism, either domestically or internationally, is a reactionary force worth taking seriously and confronting do indeed, as Marcus rightly stated, stem from our differing attitudes to imperialism and anti-imperialism. Our starting point is not a “Leninist” or “Trotskyist” orthodoxy from 1916 or 1939, insisting on seeing the world as divided solely into “imperialist” and “anti-imperialist” blocs between which we must choose. A concrete analysis of the world as it exists today must take into account the development of regional and sub imperialisms, and reactionary anti-imperialisms such as political Islam. A two-camp “anti-imperialism”, inherited from Stalinism, is wholly inadequate for understanding or responding to such a world.
Our starting point is the politics of working-class self-liberation — a revolutionary-humanist, materialist, and radically-democratic politics that stands with oppressed communities against racism whilst opposing religious reaction, and opposes both US hyper-imperialism and reactionary anti-imperialist opposition to it.
Marcus’s description of us as “neo-Shachtmanite” will probably be a little obscure to most readers. Quite what Marcus intends by adding the prefix “neo” we’re not sure, but the term “Shachtmanite” is worth explaining. Max Shachtman, a Polish-Jewish immigrant to America, was a founder and leader of the Trotskyist movement in the United States, part of the original group of Communist Party members expelled in 1929 for supporting Trotsky’s Left Opposition. He went on to be one of the foremost theorists and writers of what became the Socialist Workers Party (no relation to the British organisation of the same name).
In 1939, he began to develop differences with Trotsky, and his long-time political collaborator James P Cannon, over perspectives towards the Stalinist states. While Trotsky and Cannon argued that the USSR still represented some form of degenerated or “deformed” working-class rule, Shachtman eventually came to argue that the Stalinist bureaucracy had hardened into a new, distinct class, with its own imperialist ambitions, and that revolutionaries should not defend or side with Stalinism against capitalist imperialism.
Even before Shachtman and co's position had fully developed, a fight on the question split the SWP. “Between the slavery of a degenerated workers state and the slavery of capitalism, we prefer the slavery of a degenerated workers state”, argued Albert Goldman, then a supporter of Trotsky’s line. In 1940, Shachtman, along with others including Hal Draper and CLR James, founded the Workers Party, which sought to identify and support a “third camp” of independent working-class political organisation and perspective against both capitalism and Stalinism. The slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism” came to summarise the “third camp” policy throughout the Cold War.
A decade later, recoiling in horror from the growing totalitarianism of the Stalinist empire and despairing at the prospects for independent working-class power, Max Shachtman lurched rightward and eventually became, functionally at least, a Cold War liberal, preferring what he saw as the lesser evil of US imperialism to Stalinism, even in its barbaric expression in the Vietnam war.
But the tendency Shachtman founded continued, and a group of his co-thinkers (including Draper, Phyllis and Julius Jacobson, Herman Benson, and others) continued to develop “third camp” politics as a heteredox, broadly-libertarian Trotskyism which emphasised working-class independence and democracy. The third campists had an attitude on the “party question” which no doubt also offends Workers Power’s sensitivities, emphasising debate and dissent, and the rediscovery of the classical-Bolshevik view that internal disagreements should be argued through as publicly as possible, rather than compelling members to lie about their opinions in public.
That is indeed the tradition with which Workers’ Liberty identifies. Identifying with the political tradition Max Shachtman helped develop in no way compels us to apologise for choices he made later on. Against the Shachtman of the mid-1950s, we side with Draper, the Jacobsons, and others, who continued in revolutionary politics until the end of their lives.
But if Marcus intends “Shachtmanite” as a slur, his punch doesn’t land. Against those, like Workers Power, who would still prefer “the slavery of a degenerated workers state” to capitalism, and who would side with clerical-fascist reaction as long as it is incidentally opposed to (western) imperialism, and whose conception of political organisation insists that members lie about their views to retain the appearance of unanimity, we will wear the term “Shachtmanite” as a badge of honour.